Aretha Franklin started as a singer in her father’s church, and the gospel sound has remained a bedrock of her music
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chicago Theatre,
175 N. State
Information: (800) 902-1500; thechicagotheatre.com
Updated: August 13, 2011 2:15AM
DETROIT, Mich. — Aretha Franklin made her public singing debut in 1956 as a 14-year-old in the choir of New Bethel Baptist Church on the west side of Detroit. Her debut, “Songs of Faith,” was released later that year on Chicago’s Checker label. It was the first glimmer of an eternal light. The recording captured a stark but embryonic force: Aretha’s prodigal soul. A piano. A community choir.
And the affirmity of a song like Clara Ward’s “Never Grow Old.”
Her father, C.L. Franklin, was New Bethel’s pastor (1946-1984) and a lighting rod in the storm of the civil rights movement. He organized the 1963 “Walk Toward Freedom” with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and they tested the march in Detroit before moving forward to Washington, D.C. In 1956, Chicago’s Chess Records released a series of Rev. Franklin’s sermons. You will still hear a distant thunder from the Franklin family Thursday night when Aretha Franklin, 69, headlines the Chicago Theatre.
Rev. Franklin had majestic connections with Chicago. He was friends with Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, and Chicago’s James Cleveland became choir director at New Bethel. Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson cooked ham hocks and a pot of greens when visiting the Franklins in Detroit. Sam Cooke stayed with the Franklin family when he was a member of the Highway Q.C.’s. It’s been said but never confirmed that the charismatic Cooke wanted to sign Franklin to his nascent SAR label, which he started in 1959.
Aretha grew up amid these musical and spiritual riches.
Smokey Robinson hung around the Franklin home in the 1950s. His sister was buried from New Bethel. So was Florence Ballard of the Supremes. Diana Ross lived nearby. Aretha came home from school on one afternoon during the early 1950s and found Art Tatum riffing on the living room piano.
New Bethel Baptist is arguably America’s most important musical church.
It demands the same pop culture respect given to the Rev. Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. When Rev. Franklin’s Chess sermons were played late at night on WLAC out of Nashville, Tenn., it’s not unlikely to think Al Green, James Brown and other emerging soul stars heard the message on clear channel radio. He was known as “The Man With the Million Dollar Voice.”
“He was the first preacher to commercialize sermons,” New Bethel senior pastor Robert Smith Jr. said before a recent Sunday morning service. “Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland got that grunt in his throat from Rev. Franklin. Arthur Prysock was here all the time. David Ruffin’s [from the Tempations] funeral was here. The Contours [‘Do You Love Me’] did a whole concert here last summer. This may be the most liberal church you will ever experience. We don’t have that sacred sancutary thing.”
Between 1968 and 1972, New Bethel Baptist Church had a congregation of more than 10,000 people. Today it is around 300, according to Smith.
“Every 22 minutes someone moves from Detroit,” he said. “Most of them from this neighborhood.” Smith, 60, has been with the church since 1982.
The 1,800-seat church moved to its current location at 8430 C.L. Franklin Blvd. (formerly Linwood Street) in 1963. It is in the former Oriole Theater, built in 1927. The smaller church where young Aretha made her singing debut was razed to make way for I-94 — the fast way in and out of Detroit.
Just four years after her debut at New Bethel, Aretha Franklin was signed to Columbia Records.
Columbia’s John Hammond had the idea to blend Franklin’s declarative gospel DNA with jazz. He produced her debut record “Aretha (with the Ray Bryant Combo),” which is part of the new 12-disc box set “Take A Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia” (Columbia/Legacy). Released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Franklin’s debut at Columbia, she displays uncanny poise from the jump. The sultry blues phrasing on “All Night Long” is deeply sophisticated, especially when compared to today’s 18-year-old voices. This is all the pre-Atlantic Records stuff that many listeners don’t know about.
Each disc is a fingerprint on the blueprint of an iconic voice.
An entire disc is devoted to Franklin’s covers of the late, underrated, Chicago blues-jazz singer Dinah Washington. She also stayed with the Franklin family when traveling through Detroit. “Laughing On The Outside,” recorded in 1963, is full of lavish strings and covers like “Skylark” and “I Wanna’ Be Around,” much like what Rod Stewart is cashing in on today. (Although Franklin’s precise jazzy-torch take on her own composition “I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight) is stunning.)
The 1965 album “Runnin’ Out of Fools” finds Franklin in an unusally bouncy/white pop mode for a crossover on Motown’s “My Guy.” “The Queen In Waiting” is a compilation of singles and rarities from Franklin’s final years at Columbia. She was being produced by Bob Johnston, who at the same time was producing Bob Dylan. The set includes a DVD, “Aretha ’64! Live on The Steve Allen Show,” featuring the Queen of Soul on piano and singing “Evil Gal Blues,” and yes, “Rock-A-Bye-Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
Here, she was a long way away from New Bethel Baptist Church.
Columbia A&R guy Mitch Miller reined in Franklin. After all, her labelmates at Columbia were Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Bobby Vinton and Doris Day. (Dylan came to Columbia in 1962.)
New York Grammy-nominated producer and journalist Leo Sacks is the producer of “Take a Look.”
In a phone conversation he said, “I challenge people to play producer/ A&R person in 1960. She must have scared the pants off of [Miller]. She was navigating a new world for Columbia. Here’s this fiery woman with an old soul. How do you handle her? Columbia didn’t pay attention to what was happening on the street [in the way that Duke, King, Stax and latter-day Motown did]. Many of those labels celebrated gospel and R&B in a way that John Hammond understood, but he had a different vision. He thought the jazz guys would bring out her church roots. And Ray Bryant was a smart move for the first record. He was a confident jazz guy with great gospel licks and they were both piano players. There was a parallel universe of this rough-and-tumble lot at Atlantic Records and the Erteguns [label founders Ahmet and Herb], which was steeped in country and blues and black gospel. It’s the difference between a major corporation trying to introduce an artist on their terms with the tools that only they knew how to deal in.
“In hindsight, this is what Aretha’s dad wanted. He wanted entree into mainstream America. He was royalty and Detroit was the game. All of the artists of the day gravitated to his house. She had his blessing to go to New York City.”
Sacks is 54. His first exposure to Franklin was her 1967 hit “Respect.”
“Now I can play the song ‘Are You Sure’ from her first album with Ray Bryant with a cool rumba vibe and put that alongside ‘Think’,” explained Sacks. “I can hear ‘One Step Ahead’ toward the end of her Columbia career and put that against ‘This is the House that Jack Built.’ What happened to her at Atlantic wasn’t an accident. She brought life experience, firmly rooted in the church, to Atlantic. The flashes of her soul fire were at Columbia. While the label was growing more discouraged with her lack of commercial success, she was growing more confident and intiuitive.”
New Bethel Baptist Church is in a cold n’ cocky neighborhood, a wrinkled checkerboard of abandoned and burned-out buildings.
Besides the bustle in front of the church, the only hustle on a Sunday morning is in front of a liquor market and “soul food and pizza store” a block away. In December the Detroit News reported that 474 crimes were reported in the two-mile radius around the church from Nov. 1 to Dec. 8, 2010. Of 58 assaults, 21 were with the intent to commit murder, according to the report.
In 1979, Rev. Franklin was shot point-blank during a home invasion on the corner of La Salle and Lothrop Road two blocks south of the church.
He remained in a coma for the next five years. In April 1980, Mavis, Cleo and Pops Staples co-headlined a fund-raiser with Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland at Detroit’s Cobo Hall to raise money for Rev. Franklin’s medical expenses.
Rev. Franklin died in 1984. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral at New Bethel. Smith co-officiated the funeral where 68 people spoke, including Rev. Jesse Jackson. The murder remains unsolved. (For more on Rev. Franklin, find Nick Salvatore’s Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America [University of Illinois Press, 2006].)
Aretha Franklin has remained loyal to Detroit while others have left. She lives in the suburbs.
“It took awhile for me to even get to meet Aretha,” Smith said. “When I met her she was surprised at my age and looks. I used to have a big super-do and all. I kept her father’s name before the people. I worked to get Linwood named C.L. Franklin Boulevard. I’ve named choirs after him and kept up the C.L. Franklin Scholarship Fund. Some people have accused me of exploiting the name. I pushed it so much.”
In 1993, Aretha gave Smith the C.L. Franklin Award for carrying on his legacy.
“After her father’s death, she continued to do things at the church,” Smith said. “We run the largest daily feeding and clothing program in Detroit. She’s always helped with those programs. She was here for our Good Friday service. After the service she sang for ‘CBS Sunday Morning.’ We’ve had camera crews from Japan and Germany. Aretha used to record here a lot. I don’t have the fellowship with her that I desire,” he said as a golden twinkle emerged from his eyes.
“I tell everybody: ‘She’s the queen. The rest of us are subjects.’ ”
For more on Aretha and the social context of New Bethel Baptist Church: blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra